Composites: Hiding in plain sight
If you are reading this column, you are likely in the minority that knows what composites are and what they can do, so this month’s words should hit home. If you are new to the industry or just learning about composites, then welcome to CompositesWorld, where there is a treasure trove of information to get you up to speed. I hope you’ll find this month’s episode worthwhile as well.
“So, what field of work are you in?” That’s a question I’m asked in a variety of social situations, and no doubt many of you are as well. In answer, one option is to lay out the proverbial 30-second “elevator pitch,” which goes something like this: “I work in the area of advanced composite materials, which enable lighter vehicles and airplanes, provide exceptional corrosion resistance so roads and bridges last longer, and enable athletes to perform better due to lighter and more efficient sports equipment.” Then, the blank stare comes ... after which I have to go back to the basic glue-and-string explanation, etc. Then: “You’ve heard of carbon fiber, right? The stuff used for golf shafts, tennis racquets and high-end sports cars, like Lamborghini? Also used on the new planes from Airbus and Boeing? Those are made from composite materials.”
When the light starts to come on, I might get a response like this: “Oh, yeah, you mean like fiberglass?” Or “My friend put a fancy carbon fiber hood on his Honda tuner car. Cool weave pattern.” Me: “Yes, but much stronger, stiffer and higher tech than that.” And the conversation goes on from there, assuming they like talking about engineering things. Otherwise, we change the subject to sports or the weather, where we can both be experts.
It can be tough to explain what we do. I give my wife a lot of credit. Back when we first met and there was that spark that piqued her interest, she did what any rational woman would do to check me out — she looked me up on Google. Luckily, I have a name that isn’t that common, so my results don’t get mixed up with those from others. “Okay, you’re legit,” she says. “You have a lot of pages on Google, so that’s pretty cool.” She was especially impressed that an article I wrote for Composites Technology got quoted in The Hemp Report. Of course, I was writing about industrial hemp, as well as jute, flax and other natural fibers used in composites. Since then, she’s learned a lot more about composites and has been in a few composites-related facilities. So, when we pull up beside a new Corvette Stingray, I can say, “That car has a carbon fiber hood,” to which she replies, “How can you tell? Carbon fiber is black, and that car is painted red.”
And therein lies a big part of our public-relations problem with composites. Other than a few woven, clearcoated parts on sports cars, we jump through hoops to make composites look like something else, or put them where no one can see them. SMC and carbon fiber automotive panels must have the same smoothness as stamped steel or aluminum, so we can paint them to match the metal parts. Most carbon fiber automobile structure is hidden beneath cosmetic panels. Extruded composite decking must look like wood. We make special grades of SMC and BMC that, when molded, look like granite or natural stone, for use in building panels or grill shelves. Pultruded composite profiles mimic the metal parts they replace, and are often buried under concrete in roads and bridges or inside walls. Most composite bicycle frames, tennis racquets, fishing poles and golf shafts are painted to hide the composite laminate within. And, to most people, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 XWB look no different than aircraft with aluminum wings and fuselages. No wonder people aren’t familiar with composites! Wouldn’t these airplanes really make a statement if they were clearcoated with a twill fabric exposed? That would make people take notice!
The public is very familiar with BMW, Ford, Airbus, Boeing, DuPont and Dow Chemical Co., but it is usually for reasons other than composites. US Steel and Alcoa are well known, and they are for the materials they make. Unless they’re composites insiders, however, how much do people know about Hexcel or TenCate Advanced Composites, two of our industry’s significant materials suppliers?
Somehow, as an industry, we need to develop a collective public relations campaign to create more awareness of composites and the benefits they bring to our roads, our homes, our recreation and our skies. It would sure make explaining what we do a lot easier.
Lightweight, hard and stable at high temperatures, CMCs are emerging from two decades of study and development into commercial applications.
Fast-reacting resins and speedier processes are making economical volume manufacturing possible.
Applications aren't as demanding as airframe composites, but requirements are still exacting — passenger safety is key.